…a good poem is like a sacred, mind altering substance: you take it into your system, and it carries you beyond your ordinary ways of seeing. Kim Rosen, from Written on the Bones, Reclaiming the Ancient Power of Poetry, an article in The Sun magazine
Bet you never thought about poetry as medicine, did you? Imagine visiting your physician, and instead of a package of pills, she prescribes a poem for you to memorize and carry within your heart. In this fascinating article, Kim Rosen talks about the power of poetry to heal the mind and strengthen the soul. She urges us to embrace poetry that speaks to us individually, to “choose a poem and become its disciple.” A firm believer in the necessity of speaking poetry aloud, she tells us that a poem’s rhythm can “free the mind, crack open the thought patterns, and allow your feelings to flow in new ways.”
On the bulletin board above my desk at work I’ve tacked a tiny, typed copy of When I am Among the Trees, a poem by Mary Oliver. There are days at work when I do little else but shuffle papers, and the task sometimes seems so meaningless that I could almost cry. On those days, there is one line of the poem which stabs me right between the eyes..I am so distant from the hope of myself, the poet writes. Although I know I’m powerless to change my particular circumstances at this moment, I whisper those words to myself and acknowledge their truth. Someone else knows this feeling too, I think, and I am somehow comforted.
When I began writing my first blog about five years ago, there was an online writing group called Poetry Thursday. Each week bloggers shared their own poems or favorite poems written by others. It was here that I first met Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shahib Nye – poets who I think are especially adept at capturing the essence of our human experience in language and imagery accessible to the modern reader. I can readily imagine turning to their words and finding comfort, wisdom, new understanding. “Poetry is the language that speaks of the horror and the wonder, the reality and the mystery. It can hold both questions and answers at the same time without giving a pat solution or a self-help formula,” Rosen says. It’s an entirely personal expression, which invites an entirely personal reaction.
In the article, Rosen describes the way poetry is used in other cultures, and mentions a television show in the Middle East called Million’s Poet, an American Idol type program where the contestants recite poetry for prizes. The show, which is immensely popular, has spawned an entire channel devoted to poetry reading. Hard to imagine that happening here, isn’t it? While reciting poetry was once de rigueur in the American classroom, and a popular form of entertainment in the family parlor, it has fallen out of favor among the mainstream of American society. That’s too bad, I think, because poetry is a unique way of telling a story – half music, half literature, all impression and emotion, it’s different way of expressing our deepest desires and vulnerabilities. Rosen talks about ways this is beginning to change, with poetry slams, programs for poets in the classrooms, and a nationwide recitation competition for high school students in which hundreds of thousands of students are participating.
Life always presents great challenge, and artists of all genres respond to those challenges in their own inimitable ways. Poetry is like a small jewel in the great canon of the arts, rarely receiving the acclaim of a symphony, an oil painting, or a novel. Because it speaks to the innermost vulnerability of the reader, because it is often savored in private moments, it is sometimes overlooked.
But there is definite power in the words and images of a poem. And it should not be ignored.